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Last Updated: 07/04/2011
Safeguarding citizen participation through Government of Unity (GNU) or is democracy being violated?
Jephias Mapuva

There has been a recent trend in Africa where disputed electoral results are settled through the institution of Government of National Unity (GNU) formations, mostly popularized by incumbent political leaders who are reluctant to accept electoral defeat. This has led to situations where political opponents are forced to co-exist in government while at the same time creating apathy and despondency among the electorate who feel short changed by the total disregard for their will and the imposition of leaders who should have existed from the leadership positions in government through electoral defeat

“Who should guard the guard?” has been a common phrase among those suspicious of the people who are supposed to be custodians of certain prescribed social values and norms. In politics, people surrender their fate to politicians through bequeathing decision-making powers upon them, all in the name of democracy. Subsequently the term democracy has been abused by political leaders, especially upon realising that the generality of citizens are not actively and vigilantly democratic. Ideally, democratic governance is characterised by the existence of a strong civil society that is able to keep a check on government performance and make input into policy and processes that will enhance good governance (ISS, 2008). In practice, many forums through which citizens could make contribution to debates on issues affecting their lives have been deliberately blocked or marginalized by those who are supposed to ensure that the views of citizens are incorporated in the decision-making structures of society. In light of this reality, current democratic thought has a distinct bias towards the introduction of participatory approaches that will enable citizens to act on their citizenship rights (Esau, 2006:1). Esau maintains that this process requires that citizens become more engaged with the state to enhance state responsiveness, ensure watchfulness and accountability, and influence the policies that affect their livelihoods (Esau, 2006:2).

Citizen Participation and the bureaucracy

According to Pankhurst, (1998:2) “it is assumed that civil society [and citizen participation] are intermittently connected with democracy in some way, but whether as instrument or symptom, and how it is conceived and assessed, varies considerably”. The analysis here is that governments are often unwilling to use consultative policymaking procedures, although political parties remain accessible and, to a degree, internally democratic (OSISA, 2006:3). Ake (2000:12) adds to this by arguing that “…democracy has in some degree been reduced to an ideological representation which is well internalized”. In this way, democracy has been limited to the political level, with people being consulted on matters mainly affecting the party and to a lesser degree affecting the country as a whole. Ake further notes that even in countries which are considered advanced democracies, “there is very little knowledge of what democracy is and a great deal of confusion” (2000: 12).

Bureaucrats have justified the lack of public participation by arguing that substantive decision making should be left to representative government officials (Lynn, 2002 cited in Shah 2007:59). When such views become characteristic of the political climate, some suggest that participatory forums are used as a means of improving government legitimacy, without becoming more democratic in a deeper sense (Moynihan, 2003; Olivo 1998, in World Bank 2007:59). Citizen participation has also been used to portray citizens as ignorant and therefore not worthy of consultation. Navarro, cited in Shah (2007:59), argues that even where participation is fostered, citizens may focus only on narrow issues that affect them directly and may be unwilling to make trade-offs.

On the other hand, complaints have also been levelled against those who are involved with the bureaucracy, asserting that only those with expertise, access to resources and are well-connected to government officials are given the chance to make inputs into the decision-making processes. Crick (2002:65) maintains that “…to participate politically and to become full citizens, people need resources”. Arnstein (1969:3), through The Ladder of Citizen Participation notes that there are degrees of citizen participation ranging non-participation and tokenism to partnership and total citizen control.

Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation envisages the existence of three forms of citizen participation, namely: non-participation, tokenism, and citizen empowerment. In non-participation, government implements programmes without input from citizens. In such cases, the government only informs the citizens of its intentions. The government officials tasked with executing such programmes hold the view that they are the representatives of the people and are therefore designated to make decisions for and on behalf of the people. Under tokenism, government officials make some effort to consult the people and listen to their problems, with promises that these will be looked into. The essence for tokenism is to make the citizens feel that their contributions and input are being considered, without any significant follow-though. Andrew (2004) cited in World Bank (2007:64), maintains that “… officials claim that participation efforts are consistent with a tradition of public consultation, but are actually characterized by a bias towards groups with technical or financial backgrounds and strong connections to government”.

At the upper end of the ladder, government could, in some cases, form a joint consultative forum or partnership where government has an upper hand to dictate on one end of the continuum, or better yet, it could allow for citizen power, where decision-making powers are spread out to communities, allowing them to initiate or control programmes within their domain. Arnstein refers to this level of the citizen continuum as “citizen power”.

Citizen participation, Democracy and Government of National Unity (GNU)

The prevailing practice in much of post-colonial Africa has been dominated by rulers inclined to share power only with a very small coterie of collaborators (Beetham 1994:49). This is against the will of the electorate, and the principles of democracy, and unfortunately, this has been the kind of “power sharing” typical of GNUs, especially the cases of Kenya in December 2007 and Zimbabwe after the March 2008 elections.

Budge & Keman (1990:37) assert that, generally, such arrangements are reached when the ruling party’s confidence and legitimacy are severely weakened, but it remains strong enough to exercise control over core institutions. In both Kenya and Zimbabwe, the ruling parties realized that they could not go it alone due to the fact that the opposition is popular with the electorate. Mesfin (2008:5) points out that the “…creation of a power-sharing arrangement has the advantage of conferring some sort of legitimacy to the ruling party without discrediting the opposition, while at the same time reducing the ruling party’s fear of losing everything and fear of future reprisals.”

Legislation guiding electoral processes have been blamed for flawed electoral results. Under the Zimbabwean Constitution Section 3 of the Electoral Act [Zimbabwean Constitution] sets out that:

(a) the authority to govern derives from the will of the people demonstrated through elections that are conducted efficiently, freely, fairly, transparently and properly on the basis of universal and equal suffrage exercised through a secret ballot; and that every citizen has the right-

(i) to participate in government directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(iii) to participate in peaceful political activity intended to influence the composition and policies of Government; and

(iv) to participate, through civic organisations, in peaceful activities to influence and challenge the policies of Government.

Thus, citizens of Zimbabwe clearly have democratic rights, however, the question that needs to be asked is: to what extent have these rights translated into meaningful political participation (EISA,2003) and the credible formation of government?

Although democratic electoral processes should be associated with the conduct of free and fair elections, elections in Kenya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa have, in recent times have been associated with violence, vote rigging, and ‘vote buying’, such that the end results have not been credible. Plattner (2005:184) justifies boycotting elections as “a peaceful manner in which people may powerfully demonstrate their dissatisfaction”.

Most SADC countries [Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana, Malawi, and lately Zimbabwe] use the first-past- the-post system, which has inadvertently created more problems where losing candidates [mostly the incumbent presidents] have called for the formation of GNUs for them to be accommodated in the new dispensation and possibly to avoid and retribution for any human rights violations committed during their tenure of office.

The political developments in Kenya and Zimbabwean, where GNUs where were used to accommodate a losing candidate, have set a dangerous precedent on the African continent. Elections could eventually mean very little to the electorate, as they represent a contradiction of what democracy and citizen participation should mean. Such a trend is bound to recur in many African states where incumbent Presidents disregard the will of the people and opt for a GNU when the chances of him wining are slim, especially given that those who have lost but made it back to power through the formation of a GNU have thus far gotten away with it.

While some may argue that GNUs are appropriate in countries like Kenya where there are many ethnic groups; in Zimbabwe, the concept is certainly inappropriate. The result of a GNU formation in countries like Zimbabwe can only be the further loss of confidence by the electorate in the electoral process, and increased voter apathy.

Disenfranchising citizens through GNU

It has been argued that GNU formations are a way of defrauding the electorate of victory because ideally an election seeks to choose a leader and not a consortium of leaders who would eventually share power. By not getting the most votes implies that the electorate will have lost confidence in a political aspirant to the presidency. The most prevalent circumstance in which a nation may institute a government of a national unity is where there might be need to draw upon various parties after an election, where no one party can claim an overall majority or where a winning party still feels it needs to draw upon expertise from beyond its own ranksIn recent times, however, GNUs in Africa have been used to retain power through the back door. Despite the ruling parties having lost credibility in the elections, a power-sharing arrangement would be a compromise, especially for the ruling party.

James Hamill2 (The Guardian, July 3, 2008) has portrayed GNUs as a formation “a straightforward denial of the popular will”. While the formation implies that unity is achieved, prevailing debates have indicated that this is not the case. Hamill puts forward three principal objections to the national unity argument as it is currently being advanced for Zimbabwe. First, Hamill asserts that a GNU impedes attempts to entrench democratic values on the continent - integral to which is the absolute necessity that parties (and governments) accept election defeat and orderly transfers of power. National unity is invariably couched in a noble rhetoric, but in reality it indulges those who are prepared to unleash terror and mayhem and impose them upon the people, secure in the knowledge that, at the very least, they will have carved out a continuing role for themselves in government by so doing. That is entirely incompatible with the democratic principles which African states and African multilateral organizations have claimed to embrace.

It has been pointed out that the paradox of national unity governments is that they rarely produce national unity, and certainly have not done so in Zimbabwe. Instead, the likelihood is that GNUs will produce a pantomime horse arrangement as two parties with profound differences are compelled to work together largely at the instigation of outsiders. Kenya’s arrangement is routinely paraded before us as though it is an unqualified success – but at what cost? The Government of National Unity formation seems retrogressive to democracy and brings into question whether the usual winner-takes-it-all situation in Africa is the right way to go (BBC, 15 August 2008).

A reflection on the uniqueness of the Kenyan and Zimbabwean cases

South Africa’s national unity government came at the end of a long period in which the National party and the ANC [itself comprising alliance partners from labour unions and opposition political parties] had worked together to draft a new constitution and bring the new democratic South Africa into being. In this case, the ANC won hands down and invited relevant players on board. This was because in the South African case, the various stakeholders formed a broad-based alliance comprising the strong labour movement, COSATU, and various alliance partners including opposition political parties.

Nothing remotely similar to this situation currently pertains in Zimbabwe and Kenya. The case of Zimbabwe is a diabolically different and uncompromising one because, unlike in Kenya where President and Prime Minister have had a history of working together, here one is faced with a situation where Zimbabwean President and opposition leader are persons who have been displaying public enmity for a long period. Overdependence on liberation credentials by President Robert Mugabe and the army’s pre-election statements that they “will not salute a leader who did not fight in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle” manifests the uncompromising position of both the military and President Mugabe and their unpreparedness to hand over power to a winner. Therefore it is justified that a government of national unity would be the lowest that President Mugabe and the military would sink to accommodate the opposition MDC3.

There is a tendency by the proponents of GNUs to draw a comparison between Mandela and De Klerk and Mugabe and Tsvangirai, but unfortunately, the comparisons do not hold because De Klerk saw the need to share power and this is not the case in Zimbabwe, where each wants absolute and executive powers “to hire and fire cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister” (Zimbabwesituation: Online, 15 August 2008). In Kenya, the concept of a government of national unity was facilitated by the existence of a multi-ethnic demographic pattern that dictates the necessity of ethnic representation in government. This is supported by Erdmann & Basedau (2007:15), who argue that in Africa most states are undeniably plural societies marked by deep cleavages among a diversity of ethnic groups. Young (1993:305) supports this notion by indicating that elections seem to provide the opportunity to legitimise the political and economic pre-eminence of one group, to reward supporters of that group and compel them to adopt greater political conformity, and to re-impose a firm hand on challenging elements within or outside that group. The only comparative advantage that Kenya enjoys is its heterogeneous demographic nature that no one political party can form a government on its own and needs the presence of other political parties.

In the Zimbabwean case, the GNU formation portrays a paradox of national unity governments that can hardly produce national unity and certainly will not do so, against the backdrop of the ruling party’s violence. In the Zimbabwean case, the ruling party ZANU PF and the MDC are rivals whose co-existence within the same institutional framework would almost be impossible given their contradictory perceptions about salient issues such as land distribution. The two also seem to hold different and divergent foreign policy aspirations, with the MDC being pro-West, while ZANU PF is anti-West.


Citizen participation has been applied positively to incorporate input from citizens. However, politicians have manipulated the concept for self interest and for their political survival. It has been realized that citizen participation has often been reduced to a formality and electoral processes have equally degenerated into regular exercises that politicians use to gauge their popularity, rather than a means through which citizens choose their leaders. This abuse of citizen participation has proved to be costly both materially and emotionally, given that the input of the populace is not taken into consideration in the subsequent decision-making process. Despite all the modalities of coming up with a government of national unity, there is a tendency by political leaders to consult citizens on whether to adopt a GNU or not. Such a top-down approach alienates the electorate from crucial decision-making processes. Given that it is becoming prevalent in many African states to form GNUs, we can now predict that all dictators and prospective dictators will see this as an opportunity to prolong their stay in power.


Ake,C (2000) The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa; CODESRIA, Wiltshire.

Arnstein, Sherry. R. 1971. A ladder of citizen participation; Journal of the Royal Town Planning Institute; April 1971.

Barnett, C & Low, M (eds) (2004) Spaces of Democracy: Geographical Perspectives on Citizenship, Participation and Representation; SAGE; London

Bratton, M. 2007. Institutionalising democracy in Africa: formal or informal? Paper presented at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, United States.

Besson, S & Marti, J.L (2006) Deliberative Democracy and its Discontents; Ashgate, Hampshire

“The impact of Democracy on Public Participation in the SADC Region” in Election Institute of Southern Africa [EISA], EISA Occasional Paper No.13, October 2003

Budge,I & Keman,H (1999), Parties and Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cahn, Edgar S. and Jean Camper, "Citizen Participation," Citizen Participation in Urban Development, Hans B.C. Speigel, ed. Washington D.C.: N&L Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, 1968.


2 James Hamill in The Guardian 3 July, 2008, made a critique of the viability of GNUs in specified African countries and made a comparative analysis of the states.

3Inflammatory pre-election statements by the ruling party and the military that ‘even if the opposition MDC wins the elections, but they will not rule the country’ indicated the incompatibility of the two political parties in a Government of national unity, and total disregard of the wishes of the electorate (24 June 2008:;

Jephias Mapuva is a PhD student in the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape (South Africa).